EXPODISC: an interactive videodisc package for learners of Spanish

Paper presented at EUROCALL 91
Helsinki School of Economics, September 1991
Graham Davies

Links checked 12 October 2011

This paper was published in Savolainen H. & Telenius J. (eds.) (1991) EUROCALL 91 proceedings, Helsinki: Helsinki School of Economics: 133-139. Inevitably, a paper like this dates very quickly. It is reproduced here not simply because it is a historical document but because the work of the creators of EXPODISC - Paul Bangs (now retired from full-time university teaching and working as a free-lance consultant) and Sally Staddon (now working at Monash University, Australia) - could serve as an example to all designers of CALL software.

The underlying pedagogy of EXPODISC is as sound today as it was in the late 1980s when the idea was born. Unfortunately, interactive videodiscs were superseded by CD-ROMs in the late 1980s with the advent of the multimedia PC (MPC) - just as developers were beginning to come to terms with the full potential of interactive video. This resulted in a major step backwards in terms of video quality, as early MPCs were incapable of displaying full-frame, full-motion video, and we had to put up with postage-stamp-size video images, running jerkily at 14 frames per second. This is a classical case of the technology driving the pedagogy - an example of "dynamic obsolescence", which I refer to in my article titled "Lessons from the past, lessons for the future". Nevertheless, there are some good examples of CD-ROMs that make good use of interactive video sequences and branching, e.g. Who is Oscar Lake? and Sunpower.

DVV technology has finally caught up with IV technology, and we are now offered full-frame, full-motion video in a more compact format, with enhanced video and sound quality. See Module 2.2 of ICT4LT: http://www.ict4lt.org.

Graham Davies
Updated 27 February 2004

Videodiscs have already made their mark in industrial training in the United Kingdom and have begun to appear in schools and colleges. The videodisc is undoubtedly an ideal medium whenever the learner is required to view something over and over again. This is due to its two main advantages: Firstly, one side of a videodisc offers almost instant access to any combination of crystal-clear, still images from a total of 54,000 frames, or to a sequence of moving pictures and sound from about thirty-six minutes of playing time. Secondly, the videodisc never wears out, because it is read by a laser which does not come into contact with the surface of the disc.

A third advantage, which is more difficult to substantiate, is that videodiscs appear to be one of the most effective ways of ensuring that learners actually retain what they have learned. An unpublished thesis by Cathy Watts, who investigated the applications of videodiscs in language learning at Brighton Polytechnic in the mid-1980s, provides evidence of the effectiveness of the medium. Whatever the arguments for and against the effectiveness of videodiscs, there is little doubt that they score over other training media when there is a large throughput of trainees.

The videodisc player alone is a useful addition to the hardware used by the teacher in the classroom. Using the videodisc player and the hand-held keypad that accompanies it, the teacher can quickly locate and draw the attention of a group of students to particular frames or sequences. But used in conjunction with a computer, the videodisc player becomes a valuable addition to the battery of hardware available to the self-access learner.

Language teachers have a special interest in video as a medium, and are constantly searching for authentic video material, such as news broadcasts, documentaries and feature films. The main video medium currently available to language teachers is the videocassette, which is being used increasingly to make off-air recordings from satellite television broadcasts. So far language teachers have not been able to make much use of videodiscs. This is not due to a lack of interest or willingness but, quite simply, a shortage of material. Whatever the advantages of videodiscs, the shortage of suitable recorded material explains why this exciting new medium is slow to gain acceptance. The fact that it is not yet possible to record one's own material on a videodisc is probably the one major obstacle which outweighs all its other advantages.

Tailor-made, computer-driven videodiscs for foreign language teaching are very scarce in the UK, but they have already gained a foothold in the USA. One of the first American-produced videodiscs to draw attention was MONTEVIDISCO (Schneider and Bennion 1984), which simulates a visit to a Mexican town. The student can explore the town, listen to what its inhabitants have to say and enjoy seeing interesting places - or, if misunderstandings arise, end up being subjected to a biopsy in hospital and even land in jail.

In the UK, two videodiscs have recently been produced for language learners. The first is known as SIVILLE and was funded under the Interactive Video in Schools scheme (IVIS). This is aimed at young secondary school learners of French and is centred on a shopping expedition in an imaginary French town (Gillions 1987). The second is EXPODISC SPANISH, which my own institution, Ealing College London, and The Buckinghamshire College completed and released in early 1990 under the Interactive Video in Further Education scheme (IVIFE). Both IVIS and IVIFE are projects managed by the National Interactive Video Centre (NIVC). The remainder of this paper describes EXPODISC SPANISH in detail.

Producing EXPODISC SPANISH was an expensive business. It was decided from the outset that professionals should be employed to handle the filming, programming and production of the videodisc itself. The two lecturers who devised EXPODISC SPANISH, Paul Bangs and Sally Staddon, therefore did not have to concern themselves with the technicalities of production and could concentrate on the overall design of the package and its language content. The production budget came to over £150 000, although this figure is probably conservative as there were a number of hidden costs that were not taken into account. The funding was provided by the Department of Trade and Industry, the NIVC, the Institute of Export and a number of industrial concerns, including Austin-Rover, Jaguar, Thomas Cook, Macandrews and ELGA, on whose product the simulation is based. The completed package retails at £1550 in the UK, which may sound expensive to the average state educational institution, but business organisations do not appear to consider this price exorbitant. In fact, one potential buyer wondered why the videodisc was so cheap, as he was used to paying over three times that amount for good training material!

The actual product consists of the videodisc itself, which contains half an hour of video material plus one hour of audio material; the computer programs that drive it; and a substantial book (Connell 1989). The equipment required to run EXPODISC SPANISH is an IBM-compatible computer fitted with a VGA card and a MIC 2000 or 3000 interface. The MIC interface enables the computer to control a Philips-compatible laservision videodisc player, so that text, computer graphics and video sequences can be presented on the same screen. Sound is provided either through headphones or a loudspeaker which is built into a special video monitor.

EXPODISC SPANISH is essentially a simulation, offering basic training in Spanish for exporters and covering both practical business language and social language skills. The learner is invited to prepare and participate in an export sales trip to Madrid and to experience the results of a well- or a badly-planned exercise. The learner is cast in the role of assistant to the export marketing manager, the formidable Ms Robinson. The product that Ms Robinson and her assistant are trying to sell is authentic: the ELGA Ultra High Quality Water Purifier. The package is designed with maximum flexibility in mind. The learner is not forced to follow a particular sequence and can review topics as often as he/she wishes.

On entering the package, you are confronted by the following menu:

1. The task ahead
2. The target
3. First contacts
4. The telephone call
5. Confirmation by telex
6. Arrival in Madrid
7. At the hotel
8. Arrival at the company
9. The meeting - introductions
10. The meeting - negotiations
11. In the bar - ¡SALUD!
12. In the restaurant - ¡QUE APPROVECHE!
13. Revision of how to use the help routines
14. Access briefcase file
15. Get a preview of any of the modules

If you wish to preview any of the modules you can go straight to Module 15, which will give you an idea of what each module contains without involving you in the action. Module 13 explains how the help routines are used, and is useful as a reminder. When you use EXPODISC SPANISH for the first time, the various ways in which you can obtain help are explained before you start the action.

Modules 1 to 3 are concerned with defining your task: searching for a Spanish firm that might wish to buy ELGA's UHQ Water Purifier and making the first contact with them by letter. The export marketing manager, Ms Robinson, identifies you as her assistant and hands you a pile of documents to peruse. The documents are stored as text files on the computer and should be consulted before you go further. If you absorb the information they contain, it should not be too difficult to come up with the name of the firm that is most likely to show an interest in your product: Acuaplan of Madrid. The screen displays a skeleton letter to Acuaplan, which you complete.

Module 4, the telephone call, is the first major interactive video sequence. Señor Granados of Acuaplan, Madrid, contacts Ms Robinson by telephone. Ms Robinson conducts the telephone conversation while you take notes on dates of a proposed visit to Madrid, including a meeting to discuss a possible sales contract. There are two versions of the main part of the telephone conversation: a version at normal conversational speed and a slower, simplified version. You choose the version with which you feel most confident.

At any time you need help you can press the F1 function key to call up a strip menu that appears at the bottom of the screen. From this menu you can choose to have subtitles in English or Spanish or both languages, and ask for background help or language help. If you request subtitles in Spanish, certain words are highlighted. This indicates that language help is available. For example, you may ask to see the paradigms of the two Spanish verbs to be: ser and estar. Video sequences from other parts of the videodisc show you how the verbs are used, and you can attempt a series of exercises to help you assess how well you have understood this tricky point.

Module 5 involves the completion of a telex to Acuaplan, confirming your time of arrival in Madrid, the hotel at which you are staying and the time, date and place of the meeting. The skeleton of the telex looks like this:

FROM: 57193 ELG TO: -----------

If you have been listening carefully to the telephone conversation in Module 4 you will have no trouble completing the telex. If you have forgotten everything, you can hear Señor Granados repeat the date, time and place of the meeting - sound only - and you can review your flight and accommodation arrangements on screen

By this time Module 14, your briefcase file, is assuming importance. This is your imaginary briefcase, which stores the following:

1. Company documents
2. Brochures
3. Copies of correspondence
4. Your own notes

You have to decide what documents you need to take with you, which is important as they may be needed when you check into your hotel and take part in the meeting in Madrid. The success of the trip depends on the presence of certain documents and, because the computer remembers what you have put in your briefcase before your departure from the UK, you cannot cheat. And if you try to play safe by putting all possible documents in your briefcase you will find that it soon fills up! You can access the contents of your briefcase file at any time.

Module 6 shows you arriving at Barajas airport, Madrid. You decide whether to change travellers cheques immediately at the airport exchange kiosk or to go straight to your hotel and find a bank later. Your decision may be wrong if you have not checked the opening times of banks. You take a taxi to your hotel. The driver engages you in informal conversation. You decide if it is appropriate to tip him and how much.

In Module 7 you check in at your hotel, but there is some confusion over Ms Robinson's name because B and V sound the same in Spanish. Appropriately, the language help options in this module include some practice exercises in listening to the alphabet. There is also the possibility of confusion over the type of rooms you have booked. Ms Robinson asks you if you have remembered to bring a copy of a telex you sent to the hotel - this should be in your briefcase and will make your life easier! The receptionist gives you rather complex directions on the way to your rooms. You follow her directions with the aid of a floor plan which is displayed on screen. On arrival at your rooms, you may find that they are not be what you require and you may have to go back to reception and rearrange your accommodation.

In Module 8 you arrive at Acuaplan, where a rather unhelpful receptionist tells you where the meeting with Señor Granados is to take place. Her instructions once again call upon your ability to understand directions. You eventually find the room and are introduced to Señor Granados and Señor Ortega, a potential customer from South America.

Modules 9 and 10 are the meat of the interactive video sequences. The formal part of the meeting begins with each participant explaining his/her role in their companies. You have to express your role in Spanish by selecting boxes from an organigram which displays the structure of your company. A long sequence follows in which you discuss the technical specifications of your product, prices and terms of payment. Ms Robinson will turn to you for assistance from time to time, asking you if you remembered to bring the key documents with you: for example, the revised publicity brochure, the list of technical agents, the export price list. Ms Robinson's reactions to your efficiency vary from sarcasm to exasperation if you have forgotten something important. After all, you may lose that contract!

If the meeting has a successful outcome you are invited to drinks and a meal with your two clients. If the outcome is unsuccessful, you quietly make your way home!

Module 11 takes place In a typical Spanish bar, "La Chata". Here you participate in informal conversation and order drinks and tapas, which are typical Spanish bar snacks. The barman will react to your orders - which you can hear repeated by a male or female voice - and apologise politely if you order something that he does not have. You can access background information on the language of requesting, placing orders and asking about the contents of an unfamiliar dish. There is also detailed on-screen information available about the tradition of tapas and what they may consist of.

Finally, in Module 12, you enjoy a sit-down meal in restaurant. This is similar in format to the bar scene in Module 11, and extends the language of requesting and placing orders. You should also learn a good deal about Spanish food. Thus a successful business deal is concluded.

EXPODISC SPANISH is not only intended to be a language course. It also offers useful background information for visitors and for firms wishing to export to Spain. Most of the information of relevance to exporters is contained in the Export Database, which forms part of the help routines and can be accessed at any time.

In EXPODISC SPANISH the learner is offered plenty of listening and reading practice and is given the impression that he/she is part of a real trip to Spain. Quite deliberately, the designers decided that the only means of communication with the computer would be via the keyboard. The learner communicates by making choices from menus or by typing single words or very short phrases. This also simplifies the branching possibilities.

Since EXPODISC SPANISH was first conceived in the mid-1980s, computer technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, and there are obvious enhancements which could be added to the package. For example, a digitised sound recording device could be built into the hardware. The early devices of this sort, which are now known as audio cards, could only record and store short bursts of sound, and their quality was too poor for language teaching. But the sound quality of the latest audio cards compares favourably with that of compact discs. It is now technically feasible to allow the learner to record his/her own voice on such a card and compare it with that of the native speaker on the videodisc. A speech analysis device is another possible enhancement. This would indicate how well the student had mastered the pronunciation of a given word or phrase. But all the speech analysis devices the author has observed so far are a poor shadow of the discriminating ear of the language teacher, and even the most costly make unacceptable mistakes. There are limits to technology, and the role of the language teacher should not be underestimated.

Just how effective EXPODISC SPANISH is as a learning medium still remains to be seen. The package reached a stage at which it could be tested at the end of June 1989, and it was released in early 1990. At the time of writing (November 1990), a substantial number of copies of the package have been sold to businesses and educational institutions, but so far there has been little feedback.

Students at Ealing College, who have acted as guinea pigs in testing the package, have reacted very positively to EXPODISC. So has the author of this paper, whose only experience of Spanish, before becoming involved in the marketing of EXPODISC, had been one short holiday on the Costa Brava in the early 1980s. It was a forthcoming trip to Madrid in April 1990, which was to make in order to participate in a conference on computer assisted language learning and distance learning, that prompted me to work with EXPODISC in earnest. As a complete beginner in Spanish, I was able to cope satisfactorily with the language by making intelligent use of the subtitles and frequently consulting the language help routines and a pocket dictionary. Because I already had a good knowledge of French, Spanish did not appear too unfamiliar, but I would recommend that a student who has never tried to learn a language before should first follow a basic course in Spanish with a qualified teacher.

The trip to Madrid, which called upon my survival skills and ability to follow social conversation, was a linguistic success. All the key phrases to which I had been exposed in EXPODISC enabled me to cope with taxi drivers, the receptionist in my hotel, the waiter who served my breakfast and the barmen who offered me tapas. I had developed good listening skills after just a few hours of intensive work on selected modules from EXPODISC. It was obvious, however, that I needed to do more homework on Spanish grammar, and I would have welcomed the opportunity to practise conversation with a native speaker.

Just how many hours of work EXPODISC offers the conscientious self-access learner is difficult to say, and the designers are also reluctant to give a precise figure. In fact, this type of learning is almost impossible to quantify in terms of hours, as its approach is completely flexible. The learner can repeat sections ad infinitum, branch to whatever help he/she needs and do as many exercises as he/she likes. There is no element of linguistic progression from Module 1 to Module 12. Each one stands alone, although Modules 9 and 10, the business meeting, are probably the most demanding.

In the first draft of this paper, which I presented in November 1989 at the University of Rostock in what was then East Germany, I hinted that I would probably be presenting another paper in 1990 documenting my progress with EXPODISC. The bulk of the paper has not changed substantially, but I have made progress in Spanish and I can look back on a trip to Madrid in which I almost followed in Ms Robinson's footsteps.

Graham Davies

15th May 1991


Connell T. (1989) EXPOSPANISH, Cheltenham, Stanley Thornes.

Gillions M. (1987) "Interactive video in schools: modern languages project". In: Brown, E. (ed.), CALL Report 5, London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research: 28-30.

Schneider E. W. & Bennion J. L. (1984) "Veni, vidi, vici, via videodisc: a simulator for instructional courseware". In Wyatt D H (ed), Computer-assisted language instruction, Oxford: Pergamon: 41-46.

© Graham Davies 1991. This work is licensed under a
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